Monday, December 15, 2008

Editorial: UNESCO and the Rights to Scientific Knowledge

Sufferers have a human right
to access life-saving science
Flickr/Julien Harneis

David Dickson wrote an editorial for SciDev.Net making the important point that more should be done to enable people to exercise their rights to access to scientific information and the beneficial products of its application.
We must clarify the 'human right' to science — and remind governments of their contractual obligation to uphold it.
I agree completely!

The right is acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Remember, the United States is not only a signatory to this Declaration, but encouraged its development and supported Eleanor Roosevelt as the chair of the committee that drafted the report.

It is also acknowledged in the United Nations in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:
Article 11
2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
Article 15
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life;

(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;

(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.
The United States ratified this Covenant in 1977, and thereby obligated to abide by its provisions.

What Needs To Be Done?

The rights to science must be understood in the context of the overall set of rights. Half the world's population is extremely poor by American standards. That poverty is not merely lack of income and wealth, it also involves poor education, poor health services, poor access to knowledge and education, poor access to technology, poor access to food and inadequate housing. Unless poverty is ameliorated, there will be no real access to science and its beneficial applications.

Everyone, even those of us fortunate enough to live in affluent societies, obtain our access to science via institutions, including importantly educational institutions. However, market institutions provide us to products produced by corporate institutions applying scientific knowledge in their production. Assuring people the rights to knowledge involves implanting the needed policies and building the needed institutions. It also involves educating not only the consumers of science and its products, but also the vast workforce needed to develop, disseminate, and utilize scientific knowledge.

There are still government policies that deny people access to scientific knowledge, censoring information that government officials feel would be dangerous for the public to know or censoring information generally catching scientific information in the net as part of the total injunction. I find the deliberate obstruction of access to scientific knowledge even more unforgivable than failure to take the positive steps needed to promote such access.


Not only does UNESCO seek to promote human rights through all of its programs, it has been intimately involved in the United Nations processes through which the nations of the world have agreed to honor those rights. Through its natural science programs it has fostered international cooperation in science. Its programs focusing on oceans, water, geology, and other sciences have helped to make information widely available on natural resources and their sustainable development.

Information from the social and human sciences is especially sensitive in many countries. While people must understand their societies and their economies if they are to progress, and indeed must understand human behavior, such knowledge can challenge traditional beliefs and threaten dysfunctional elites. UNESCO has been especially involved in improving the use of scientific knowledge in the policy making process.

Science education has been an important element of UNESCO's programs since its inception, involving both its educational programs and its science programs. UNESCO has focused not only on science in the pre-college years, but has also promoted university education, and indeed has helped establish post-graduate opportunities for students of the pure and applied sciences.

UNESCO's Communications and Information Program has worked to help developing countries to improve both the information and communications infrastructure and the content provided through that infrastructure. For many people in developing nations, the mass media are the most available means of access to scientific information, and thus it is critical that the content broadcast through the media be appropriate for their needs and interests.

Thus one way to promote peoples rights to scientific knowledge and its application is to support UNESCO and its programs.

John Daly
(The ideas expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

Read about UNESCO's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No comments: